Make your to-do list doable

How long is your to-do list?

Go ahead, take a peek at it if you need to, I can wait. Make your to-do list

When I ask this question, and I ask it to almost all of my clients, students, and maybe a few people who would rather not be asked, I usually get this response:

“My to-do list makes me feel overwhelmed.”


Like I’ll never get everything done.

Or worse, there is no verbal response, but instead a sagging in the shoulders and a defeated look.

Does this happen to you?

If so, it’s time for a to-do list makeover. I’ve listed here for you a few things that might be happening if you feel like your to-do list is more like hiking Mount Everest without a walking stick (or ski poles).

It’s too freaking long. You know you have this problem when your to-do list includes everything you’ve ever wanted.

A to-do list is a list of things you intend to get done in the immediate future. I recommend that you don’t write one for longer than a week at a time.

It is not a bucket list. It is not a list of what you want to see in each of the fifty states. Nor is it a list of all the steps you need to take to complete a bathroom remodel (unless you’re going to finish those steps in one week.)

An ideal to-do list is going to have the things that have to get done in the period of time the list is written for. Drop off dry-cleaning. Send thank you cards.

It may also include a few tasks that you really want to spend time on that are outside your realm of responsibilities, but that are important to you. Some examples might be “sign up for singing lessons” or “schedule three days to focus on marathon training.”

Makeover your list into one that is short and as relevant to the immediate future as possible. This can be hard if your brain is wired to think in terms of the future. Some of us have a knack for the small details and others live in the realm of the big picture. When we live in that big picture space, we can easily trade the practicality of a to-do list for the pleasure of writing a list of dreams or fantasies.

Your list isn’t accessible. I work with students at a community college. Many of them are good at being students. Many more of them struggle with the habits that make a successful student. They often feel like they can’t keep up. They don’t turn in work on time. They are unclear of the expectations.

We talk a great deal about the importance of writing these things down, taking notes in class, having a daily planner and creating a weekly to-do list.

The missing link that pops up frequently between writing down upcoming tasks and getting them accomplished is simply referring back to the to-do list.

One of my favorite thing about college students is that they’ll tell you the truth about almost anything. And one consistent truth is this: I wrote it down, I just didn’t look at what I wrote down when I got home.

There is no doubt that sometimes this is just plain old laziness.

But other times it’s also the accessibility of the list. Is your to-do list in Outlook at work and you can’t access it from home? Or maybe it’s on an app on your phone, but you find that when you go to your phone, you are easily distracted and have a hard time keeping your eyes on your list.

Part of an effective to-do list is making sure you have the right tools for you. If you don’t normally use your calendar on your smartphone, don’t keep your to-do list on it.

If things get misplaced in your house, don’t leave your list where someone else might assume it goes in the recycle pile.

Makeover your list by choosing a tool that you will both use to write down your tasks and refer back to for momentum and accountability without interference from others.

Keep in mind you could also try something new. What about voice recording your to-do list and listening to it later? Or using a bulletin board to organize your tasks into categories? Find what works for you.

Your list confuses goals and tasks. At the start of every year there is a lot of hype about your goals or intentions for the next twelve months. People spend serious time on this stuff.

Goals give you direction and a sense of purpose. They are the big, high-level things  you want to accomplish. And they should be written down and kept somewhere you can easily see them. Maybe on a special page in your day planner or in a frame on  your desk.

Goals usually have several steps to complete. The tasks that make up the steps to reach a goal are the items that you put on your to-do list.

When your to-do list has goals on it, the list can start to feel big and scary. It’s not the place for big things like “write book” or “build house.”

Instead your to-do list is the last thing you write when you break down your goals into actionable items. If you had a really big goal, like plan grandmother’s 90th birthday party, you would start by making a list of all the big steps to accomplish. Reserve a space. Hire a caterer. Find a photographer.

These break into even smaller steps. The smaller steps, things like “call the bakery,” are the items that go on your to-do list. Does your list need a goal remover makeover?

It’s wonderful to keep a running list of things to accomplish, but it shouldn’t be your regularly referred to to-do list. A to-do list is for a short amount of time. It is a perfect thing to write for a day or a week at a time, with realistic tasks that can be completed in the time you have.

You don’t care about your to-do list. I met a student once who told me he was going to medical school because his dad wanted him to (yes, just like in Dead Poet’s Society, no it did not end the same way). He looked so sad when he said it. His dad ran his own practice and wanted his son to take over.

He had a rigorous academic plan. He was intentional about where he chose to go to school. He was already thinking about how much time he would take to study for the MCAT. His life was planned out for him and to him, it felt like one big chore.

Don’t let this happen to your to-do list.

Makeover your to-do list to fill it with things that you choose to do, not things you feel like you have to do.

I choose to be a mom, so yes, my daily list includes things like “pack lunches” and “find the missing pink hair clips,” but I choose for those tasks to be on my list because that’s the kind of parent I choose to be.

My list is not an extensive log of things my mother, husband, sister, or friend think I should be doing. It’s my list, just my stuff is on it. And because it’s just mine, I really, genuinely care about it.

Now it’s your turn. Go back to your to-do’s and see what you can do to make it over into a doable to-do list.

As for me,  I’m going to check off my to-do list next to “write weekly article.”

Like this article? Please feel free to use it on your own blog or newsletter. I simply ask that you please include this blurb:
Sara Marchessault is a coach, writer, teacher, and mom who helps busy women use journaling to create more space in their life for being productive without feeling overwhelmed. To learn more about Sara and her work in the world, please visit or

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